When will the 2019-20 NBA season resume, and what will the playoffs look like? We’re tracking the big questions and updates as the league gets closer to a return to action.
The season began an indefinite hiatus on March 11 after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. Commissioner Adam Silver initially said the suspension would last at least 30 days, but a late July return is now looking like the best-case scenario.
More updates are expected Friday afternoon following a call with the league’s board of governors.
Get the latest from ESPN’s insiders and analysts on the NBA’s response to the coronavirus outbreak here.
What’s the latest?
The NBA has entered into exploratory conversations with The Walt Disney Company about resuming its season at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, in late July, per NBA spokesperson Mike Bass.
The NBA is discussing a step-by-step plan for a resumption of the 2019-20 season that includes an initial two-week recall of players into team marketplaces for a period of quarantine, one to two weeks of individual workouts at team facilities and a two-to-three-week formal training camp.
Barring an unforeseen turn of events, many NBA owners, executives and NBPA elders believe Silver will greenlight the return to play in June — with games expected to resume sometime before the end of July, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Discussions were continuing this week within the league on how the NBA plans to structure a return-to-play scenario. On a Thursday call with the NBA GM’s, Silver confirmed that Friday’s meeting of the board of governors will not include a formal vote on a return-to-play plan, sources told Wojnarowski. Talks will continue into the weekend.
Officials are continuing to discuss variations of plans that include a play-in tournament, pool-play bracket and regular-season games moving into the playoffs. The NBA has yet to formally rule out the idea, but teams have become increasingly skeptical of the league bringing back all 30 teams to complete the season.
What are the disagreements on the return-to-play scenarios?
Some teams have advocated for a wide-open playoffs, a knockout round to give those teams who are among the worst a way to punch up into the play-in for the eighth seed, per a report by Wojnarowski. Some want every market — New York and Chicago included — invited into the fans’ consciousness. And some are fearful of delivering the competitive disadvantage of a nine-month hiatus prior to the 2020-21 season to young, rebuilding franchises.
When the NBA and NBPA canvass teams at the bottom of the standings, they also hear ambivalence. Not one owner or GM is explicitly telling anyone they don’t want to play this season. Even so, there are enough players on enough bad teams who’ve shared the idea that they don’t see the value in several weeks of camp and quarantines to play five to eight regular-season games with no playoff potential.
Some lottery teams have also made it clear via back channels to the league that if their players are decidedly so-so on returning, there will be no showdown. Translation: If you need to keep us out, we’ll gladly keep our favorable lottery position. See you next season.
Privately, Silver has been considering the idea that there are plenty of sensible reasons to pare down the roster of teams in Orlando. First, there’s safety — fewer teams, fewer people to contract or spread the coronavirus and less bad basketball. Even elite teams will be sloppy upon return, so what about the others?
What’s up with the pool-play scenario?
The league issued a GM survey that included a pool-play option featuring somewhere between the 16 current playoff teams and the full body of 30 NBA teams, according to a report by Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe. Teams would be divided into a certain number of groups and face each member of their group the same amount of times. (The total number of pool-play games has not yet been specified.) All of these probably would be branded as playoff games.
Based on the final standings within each group, eight teams would advance out of pool play into a bracket meant to mimic the league’s normal postseason structure, sources told Lowe. Several current postseason teams were not initially enthusiastic about that proposal. A slump in group play could result in what is currently a solid playoff team — even one slated for home-court advantage in the first round of a normal postseason — failing to advance into the eight-team tournament, while a present-day lottery team might get hot and make the final eight.
There are multiple factors that could leave teams feeling unfairly treated. The West’s No. 8 seed, the Memphis Grizzlies, had its toughest stretch of games left this season. The Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings are within 3½ games of Memphis in the standings. Portland — with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins possibly returning — and New Orleans — with a well-conditioned Zion Williamson — could be dangerous challengers in a play-in scenario.
What are the pros and cons of the playoff options on the table?
Blazers star Damian Lillard says he believes a play-in tournament for teams on the outside of the playoff picture is the best option.
“I feel like a play-in tournament would be perfect, just because we actually were in striking distance and also had enough games to get in the playoffs,” Lillard said Wednesday on ESPN’s Jalen & Jacoby. “But to that point, if they did decide that we’re just gonna go straight to the playoffs, obviously, we would all be disappointed. …
“We haven’t performed to be in that top eight. So if that’s the case, then fine. But if we’re gonna just come back to play games, I feel like that’d be harder on everybody else.”
Zach Lowe goes in depth on what he thinks is the best way for the NBA to return whether is it’s a play-in tournament or going right to the playoffs.
Who would be helped and hurt most in a neutral-site playoff format?
What about the safety logistics?
The NBA has principally consulted with two experts throughout the pandemic: former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy and Dr. David Ho, director and CEO of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia University.
Concerns of testing capacity and perception in the initial weeks of the shutdown have shifted to issues of protocol — the league’s position has been to closely watch other sports return to action, learn from what has gone well and adapt that information to suit its needs.
Murthy has spoken to league leaders and team owners, and, informally, to others across sports who confidentially contact him. The questions are all of the same ilk: When can fans return to games? How should they respond if someone tests positive? How often should they test athletes or staffers? How should they safely keep distance between staffers and players?
The answers to those questions are still unknown.
Do players want to play?
In team-by-team virtual calls with players this week, National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said the “overwhelming” sentiment has been that “they really want to play” and resume the 2019-20 NBA season.
“It’s time. It’s time,” Roberts told ESPN. “It’s been two and a half months of, ‘What if?’ My players need some level of certainty. I think everybody does.”
Roberts says she believes the union will be able to give feedback on any return plans quickly because of the collective bargaining that has already taken place via a joint task force, and the virtual calls she is holding with each team. She said the players’ association does not necessarily need to hold a vote on the league’s plans.
“If we thought we needed a vote, we would. If we’re ratifying a CBA, we need a vote,” she said. “But our preferred method is talking to people or just having them talk to us. Then if we get a sense of what the sentiment is then we can move forward.”
What about travel?
The NBA informed teams Wednesday that players currently overseas will be granted clearance to reenter the United States, regardless of U.S. travel restrictions existing in those countries, according to a memo obtained by ESPN.
Among marketplaces where governmental restrictions are keeping practice facilities shuttered, teams have asked the NBA whether players can bypass returns to those cities and report directly to the league’s proposed campus environment for the start of training camps, sources told ESPN.
Most teams in regions still adhering to stay-at-home policies have an abundance of players who left their marketplace during the shutdown and would need to quarantine for an extended period — perhaps as many as 14 days — prior to joining workouts in team facilities. Teams want to avoid having to quarantine significant portions of their rosters twice — once upon returning to more restrictive markets and then again in Orlando.
The NBA has told those teams that it plans to work with them on solutions that possibly include redirecting some teams directly to campus/bubble sites instead of team facilities to hold training camps.
Executives from the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors were among those on a general manager’s call with the league office who expressed concern about how waiting on the league to release a timetable complicates their ramp-ups to return in ways that are unique to those marketplaces, sources said.
Will family members be able to join players in Orlando?
The NBA and the union are progressing on a plan that would allow for a limited number of family members in the bubble environment, sources told ESPN on Wednesday.
Conversations have centered on the timing of family arrivals at Walt Disney World Resort, which are likely to start once an initial wave of teams are eliminated and the number of people within the league’s bubble decreases.
Family members would be subjected to the same safety and coronavirus testing protocols as everyone else living in the NBA’s biosphere. Many players are eager to have family join them in Orlando, especially those on contending teams who anticipate lengthy stays in the playoffs.
What are NBA facilities like right now?
The Blazers were among the first two NBA teams to return to facilities three weeks ago, when eight of their rostered players showed up. Most of the league has since followed suit — the Dallas Mavericks opened their gym Thursday, leaving only the Celtics, Bulls, Pistons, Warriors, Knicks, Spurs and Wizards shut down.
What’s going on with the league financials?
That will be the next big question as soon as the NBA finalizes a return-to-play plan. Silver told players that 40% of league revenue comes from money built around game nights in arenas. Without that revenue, there could be a drastic decline in the projected $115 million salary cap and $139 million luxury tax for 2020-21.
The initial cap projections were based on an expected $8 billion in basketball-related income (BRI), which is now expected to decrease by at least $1 billion and potentially as much as $2 billion. BRI takes into account a wide range of revenue from gate receipts to broadcast rights, and it is split roughly evenly between teams and players.
NBA players are already having 25% of their paychecks for this season withheld to account for the loss in revenue. That money — and potentially additional pay cuts — could be returned to teams if the final restart outcome doesn’t even out the BRI split.
The league and the players’ union will need to make adjustments to the collective bargaining agreement and how the business of basketball operates going forward. ESPN’s Bobby Marks provides eight proposed tweaks for the upcoming offseason and 2020-21 based on conversations with front-office executives and player agents.
Editor’s note: ESPN is owned by The Walt Disney Co.